Bigger Isn’t Always Better: The Jerry Maguire Approach to US Higher Ed Fairs

I remember my last US higher education fair with IIE-Vietnam.  (Note:  I served as country director from 2005-09.)  There were a record 92 participating institutions in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  Every square inch of the ballroom and the lobby was packed with tables, reps and attendees.  By all accounts, including number of institutions represented, attendees and cash flow (“business development” is, after all, a high priority for any self-respecting nonprofit, especially one with a pressing need to diversify its funding sources), the fair was a huge success, at least on a quantifiable basis.

It was hectic, invigorating, exhausting and you had the feeling that LOTS of young people were getting LOTS of good information about studying in the USA.  In spite of this, I couldn’t help but think that we had created a monster of sorts.  Bigger isn’t always better, especially for events that are supposed to be about dialogue and meaningful interactions between human beings, in this case representatives of US higher education institutions and Vietnamese students and parents.  Mega-fairs are essentially McFairs, the international student recruitment equivalent of fast food.  Go in, grab materials (and gifts), maybe exchange a few words and you’re on your way.

When I continued the US community college fairs with Capstone Vietnam in 2010 that I had started in 2006 with IIE-Vietnam – in cooperation with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and Judy Irwin, then AACC’s director of international programs and services – I made a conscious decision to focus on quality, service and care over quantity.

Last month, we organized our first ever StudyUSA Higher Education Fairs in Hanoi and HCMC.  We had eight (8) institutions in Hanoi and 12 in HCMC, a good start.  In addition to the main events, attended by hundreds of students, parents and others, the fair series included high school visits in each city, a consular briefing in Hanoi, and social events, along with a country briefing and discussion, and participation in an English speaking club event about US higher education.  Our colleagues were assisted by carefully screened and well-trained student volunteers, who acted as translators and one-time local reps.

They were the kind of fairs that I envisioned: smaller with higher quality and more meaningful interactions than at the McFairs. We have always had an “advising table” (at our community college fairs) but decided to add an “alumni table” for this fair series, so that interested students and parents could take advantage of the opportunity to speak with Vietnamese alumni of US colleges and universities.

In the age of social media and with a proliferation of resources about overseas study, higher education fairs seem quaint but are still worthwhile because they create the conditions for US colleagues and students/parents in Vietnam and other countries to meet face-to-face, learn something about each other and make a connection.

In a market that has become saturated and more competitive than ever, especially in the last six or seven years, these helicopter marketing events remain important but they should by no means be the only form of outreach.  Their success, as measured by post-fair inquiries, applications and admissions, depends upon many factors, including branding, the use of Vietnamese language materials and web content, the passion and dedication of the recruiter, and luck.

Sometimes good things do come in small packages.


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